Common behavioural problems in shelter cats

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It is widely believed that cats are brought to shelters because they have behavioural problems. In fact, this is usually not the case. Some cats (and dogs) are abandoned in shelters and rescue centres for reasons that have nothing to do with their behaviour. But that’s another subject: ……

Unfortunately, some cats have been living in shelters for so long, waiting for their forever homes, that their behaviour starts to change. This can lead to specific problems for the cats due to displacement and panic.


These cats are the ones most in need of adoption so that they can overcome their new problems and become lovable pets again. Although these cats are often neglected, they often become the most loving kittens you could ever hope to adopt. (I can personally attest to this).

Here are some signs you might notice when you bring home a shelter or rescue cat, and how you can help your new companion overcome their nerves and fall in love with you.

1 Feeling uncomfortable around others

Your new cat may have been pampered by a previous owner, been a neglected stray, or been a shelter or rescue cat from birth without anyone ever doing anything to her. Either way, unless they’re lucky enough to live with a foster family, shelter cats generally don’t have many opportunities to interact with people on a one-to-one basis, let alone bond with and trust a stable person.

Shelters can be particularly intimidating for cats due to the noise and bustle of people coming to see them, the noise of other animals living there, and especially barking dogs (sorry, guys!) .

2 Aggression or isolation

Isolation and aggression are two ways in which cats defend themselves in difficult situations. Your new cat may feel overwhelmed in its new environment; it may never have lived in a home before, especially if it was born and raised in a refuge or foster home; it may never have bonded with a human before or, if it has, it doesn’t understand why it’s no longer with that person. The shock of being in a new environment may cause him to make physical movements, growling and hissing when you reach out to give him affection. It may retreat and make itself as small as possible, a characteristic that allows cats to protect themselves in the wild.

Change and cats are like water and cats! Cats find it hard to accept change, even positive change, because it can threaten their world. This is why, as part of their survival instinct, your new cat may hide and/or attack you. Not knowing their new territory, they don’t know if they have enough resources, let alone what other threats they face. All domestic cats have these instincts, just like their wild relatives.

Over time, you’ll gain his trust. Keep talking to him in a calm, soothing voice and give him food, a soft litter tray and toys when you’re away. Stay consistent and don’t avoid contact with him at all costs. He needs to know that he is safe and that you are someone he can trust. You should be ready to talk to him at any time, but don’t force him to have physical contact with you until he lets you know he’s ready.

3 Refusing to eat

A panicked cat may initially refuse to eat. You can therefore offer him food, water and a litter tray near his current hiding place. Hunger being a major trigger, he may decide to eat while everyone else in the house is asleep, because he knows no one will disturb him.

Continue to offer fresh food, water and treats. Scented foods, such as tuna, can also whet his appetite. If you don’t see any signs of him eating or using the litter tray after two days, call your vet for help, as fatty liver can develop after three days without food. If he’s suffering from a respiratory infection (which can be caused by stress), he may not be eating simply because he can’t smell the food.

4 Irregular excretion

A new cat may relieve itself elsewhere than in its litter box, mainly because it’s unfamiliar with the house and afraid to explore it. For the first few days especially, keep a litter box close by where he might hide. If you let him walk a long way to find the litter tray in this “unknown land”, he’ll be more inclined to “go” where it is and not risk exposing himself to the rest of the house until he’s ready.

After a while in your home, if he’s still avoiding the litter box, take him to the vet to rule out any illness that might be causing the problem.

5 Separation anxiety

Once you’ve established a close relationship, a new problem can arise: separation anxiety. If your cat was used to living in a comfortable home, she may become agitated and nervous when her favourite person isn’t around. She may also lash out at other members of the family if she’s afraid of being away from her new, safe environment again.

One way of preventing this anxiety is to ensure that there are several people in the house looking after the pet. Ask everyone in the family to share feeding and playing duties. That way, there will always be someone around with whom he feels comfortable, and he won’t be afraid when one of you isn’t at home.

It takes time and patience to overcome abandonment and fear in shelter and rescue cats, and to fully understand your new cat. Put yourself in your new cat’s shoes: imagine being suddenly kicked out of your home, away from your family, then put in a cage, and finally sent to a brand new place to live with people you don’t know. It’s an insurmountable fear, to say the least.

Once your cat understands that you’re there for her, that you provide the stability, love, food and companionship she’s had (or perhaps never had), she’ll come out of her shell and become your best friend for life.

By Rita Reimers , September 29, 2019

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